This UP based start-up is easing the lives of farmers with its solar-based milk coolers and cold storage.
Agriculture and post-harvest losses in India
The importance of agriculture in India cannot be emphasized enough. About 50% of Indians are dependent on agriculture. The farmers and agricultural labour toil hard for months to grow the food we eat.
India’s stellar strides in agriculture are a feat in itself. From being dependent on low-quality grain imports from other countries and suffering from severe famines in the 1960s to becoming not only food sufficient but also among the top producers of many agricultural products like rice, cotton, milk, fruits, vegetables, pulses, etc. So it is a paradox to see farmers throwing away their produce on the roads because of low income; pushing their children away from agriculture or even taking the fatal step of committing suicide. These distressing events are a result of multiple interlinked factors. A significant but less talked about factor among them is of post-harvest losses.
A 2016 report by the Ministry of Food Processing estimates that post-harvest losses in India are approx 40% of the produce and result in loss of over Rs. 92,650 crore ($13 billion).
It is the cost of cereals, milk, meat, fruits, vegetables, cash crops and oilseeds that gets spoiled while being transported from farm to market and is primarily borne by the farmers. This is perplexing considering that India has the highest incidence of malnutrition, hunger and lakhs of people go to sleep on empty stomachs. The problem is especially acute for perishable items like fruits, vegetables, milk and meats. Multiple reports state the lack of decentralized cold storage infrastructure and related supply chain logistics that primarily account for such food wastage. This is where Inficold saw the potential and aimed to address some of the distress in the agriculture sector with their farm-based, solar-powered cooling solutions.
Birth of the ideal cold storage solution
Inficold is the brainchild of Dr Nitin and Dr Himanshu. It was started in 2015 with the aim of delivering affordable, clean and sustainable energy solutions for cooling and storage of agricultural produce. The duo had worked on developing cooling systems for laptops, electrical machines and even fighter jets. They hold multiple patents, including one for designing the cheapest and smallest refrigerator. Because of their family background in agriculture and having seen the food wastage first hand, they decided to take on the challenge and utilise their expertise to devise innovative yet simple designs that can be adopted by the farmers.
Inficold set up the base at Ghaziabad and Noida in UP. The team comprises about 80 members and has installations in over 20 states. The R&D phase spanned across 3.5 years and was entirely in-house. The main products at this stage are the solar milk cooler and solar cold storage. The core mechanical and electrical components are manufactured in-house while some common components are procured and then assembled. The products are fully automatic and require minimal intervention. It is also working to develop solutions for solar-based heating and cooling applications and other industrial cooling applications such as mushroom farming, vaccine storage, etc.
Due to the high focus on design and quality, even 5-8 hours of solar can give 24 hours of uninterrupted cooling.
Inficold is an early mover in the field of transformative designs and retrofitting cooling solutions. It provides flexible and customized solutions as per the clients’ requirements. It provides an instant cooling option for milk that helps to decrease the operator time from 4-6 hours to 2 hours. These farm-based milk coolers help to ensure the quality of milk and help the farmer to get higher prices. The portable cold storage can be used for fruits, vegetables, poultry and even vaccines.
Ice Battery: The Game changer
What sets them apart is their integration of Ice Battery that stores the solar energy as ice.
The Ice Battery is a clean, reliable and low-cost distributed energy storage solution. It charges by making ice during off-peak hours and discharges by using the stored ice to provide cooling. Thus it reduces the dependence on conventional batteries and diesel generators that cause pollution and can be hazardous if not disposed of properly. Moreover, ice offers significant advantages over phase-changing materials that are conventionally used for such applications. The ice batteries offer higher efficiency and cooling speed while consuming less energy.
Challenges and learnings
Being a new player in a niche segment was a challenge for Inficold as the clients rely heavily on word of mouth and on-field success. This led to initial impediments in the marketing phase and getting customers on board. However, with the focus on listening to the users and integrating their feedback in the designs, they were actually able to recognize and meet the crucial yet latent needs of customers that the latter hadn’t even anticipated. Also, the slightly higher initial cost of solar solutions is a problem in the price-driven Indian market. However, some customers were quite enthusiastic to switch to renewable energy-based solutions, due to its interoperability between on and off-grid applications. The Corona lockdown did lead to the closure of operations for a couple of months but they utilized the time to introspect and optimise the product designs.
Inficold’s business model primarily focuses on the B2B segment and the clientele mostly comprises large co-operatives and dairies. Due to their flexible and customized solutions that cater to customer’s demand, the team is able to successfully convince the customers to choose its solution rather than their default/ initial choice. Its solutions also ensure savings and higher income for the farmer in the form of superior quality, lesser time and lesser emissions. The payback time for solar is also relatively less.
Such is the ingenuity of their craftsmanship that a customer having 30+ years of experience in the dairy sector complimented the team about never seeing such an efficient and game-changing product in his life.
Most of the existing cold storage facilities in India are not suitable for fruits and vegetables. Also, they’re located far away from the farms and thus lead to wastage during the transport of the produce. The decentralized, clean, flexible and reliable solutions designed by Inficold are truly transformative in addressing the problems related to agricultural logistics, farmer distress and emissions from agriculture.
Article by Subhav Duggal, Team ulaunch